The 1990 Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan were a team that was coming. The Bulls advanced in the playoffs in 1988 and reached the conference finals in 1989, before being taken out by the Detroit Pistons each time. 1990 saw them nudge incrementally closer to their goal, before the familiar nemesis did them in one more time.
Jordan’s running mate was small forward Scottie Pippen who averaged 17 points/7 rebounds/5 assists per game and his long wingspan made him a tough defender. More support came down low from Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright who combined to average 24 points/15 rebounds a night. The Bulls had an array of three-point shooters with Craig Hodges, John Paxson and Steve Kerr while relying on rookie point guard B.J. Armstrong to run the offense.
And Jordan himself? He merely knocked down 34ppg and continued to be the meal ticket for head coach Doug Collins.
The key competition in the East started with the Pistons and included the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Charles Barkley-led Philadelphia 76ers. Chicago opened the season with an overtime win over the Cavs, took the first game with the Pistons and knocked off the 76ers as part of a five-game win streak in December.
Three straight losses in January were a setback, with one of them coming to Detroit, who won the next three head-to-head games with the Bulls. The Pistons, the defending NBA champs, would secure homecourt advantage. But Chicago won 55 games of their own and ripped off a 24-3 run down the stretch that secured them the second-best record in the East. The highlight came on March 28 when Jordan went to Cleveland and poured in 69 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and played fifty minutes in an overtime win.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the first-round opponent. The Bucks had been a playoff perennial through the 1980s, but they were on the downswing. Milwaukee had an excellent defender in Alvin Robertson and the Sixth Man Of The Year in Ricky Pierce, but they weren’t going to match up with Jordan in the playoffs.
In the first two games, Jordan knocked down a combined 74 points. Pippen went for a 17/10/13 triple-double in Game 1 and then bagged 32 of his own in Game 2. The 111-97 and 109-102 wins gave the Bulls an ironclad grip on a round that was then a best-of-five. After losing Game 3 on the road, Chicago came back tough in Game 4. They held Milwaukee to 35 percent shooting from the floor, outrebounded them 57-36 and closed the series with a decisive 110-86 win.
A more anticipated battle with Philadelphia was up next. Barkley had averaged 25/12 through the regular season and his supporting cast included the former Piston enforcer Rick Mahorn. Sixer point guard Johnny Dawkins could both score and distribute while Hersey Hawkins was good for 19 a night.
Jordan and Barkley were each ready to go. Jordan was good for 39 points in the opener, while Charles went off for 30/20. Chicago was able to hold their own on the glass and after taking a 12-point lead in the first quarter, basically held serve the rest of the way to win 96-85. It took a third quarter rally to win Game 2, coming from eleven points down, but the overall formula was much the same—Jordan exploded for 45 and in spite of Barkley’s 19 rebounds, the Sixers couldn’t gain any advantage on the interior. Mahorn may have helped torment Chicago in his Detroit days, but he was a non-factor in this series.
The two stars continued to stuff the stat sheet back in Philadelphia for Game 3. This time it was Jordan getting 49, while Barkley delivered an exquisite 34/20/8 line. This time, the 76ers rebounded with urgency, won the glass battle 43-42 and the basketball game 118-112.
When Philly held a nine-point lead after three quarters of Game 4, it looked like we had a series on our hands. Barkley, with a 22/13 night, did all he could to make that happen. But as good as Sir Charles was, he wasn’t Michael. Jordan went for 40-plus for the third consecutive game, the Bulls dominated the fourth quarter and won 111-101. They closed out the series at home with a 117-99 win. Jordan had averaged 43 ppg over the five games and Chicago was returning to the conference finals.
Detroit was waiting. A year earlier, Chicago lost this round in six games. This time they defended their home floor, taking both middle games and winning Game 6. But they were unable to get a road win and Jordan’s supporting cast had an utterly disastrous showing in a Sunday afternoon Game 7. The 93-74 loss ended the season.
The Bulls were still clearly the NBA’s team on the rise, which made the offseason firing of Collins that much more surprising. But the new coach turned out okay—Phil Jackson would lead this franchise to its golden age. There were six NBA championships in the immediate future, starting in 1991.